An unwanted update to your Google Account

5 min read

google privacy settings graphic

I got an email from Google today with the title “An update to your Google Account”.

The gist of the email is that Google wants to change the country associated with my account, presumably based on recently recorded IP addresses associated with my account.

It specifically said the following:

We associate your Google Account with a country (or region) so that we can better provide our services to you. This association is used to determine two things:

The Google company that provides the services, processes your information and is responsible for complying with applicable privacy laws

The version of the Terms of Service that governs our relationship, which can vary depending on local laws.

Your country association will change within 30 days:

from Germany to Malaysia

Bear in mind that Google services are essentially the same, regardless of your country association. Also, any purchased content and banking information that you might have in your Google Account will remain the same.

What I find curious is that it says the services are essentially the same between different countries. So, there is no advantage to me as a consumer for anything to change.

There is a disadvantage for me, because the privacy laws in Europe are stronger than Asia, I lose some privacy protection. Is this a coincidence?

I don’t want to be cynical, but it seems suspicious to me. As someone who travels a lot (not recently!), I would never want this done automatically for me. This has never happened before, so it must be a recent policy change.

I wonder if they will they make this change every few months in the future if I move around? Is there some criteria that triggers this to happen?

Further in the email, it gives an indication of how you can request to correct your associated country:

If the country associated with your account doesn’t match your country of residence…You can find more information about your country association, and a way to request a change if you think that it’s wrong, by reviewing the Google Terms of Service.

The Terms of Service actually say nothing at all about country association!

After some searching, I found how to make a Country Association Inquiry. It’s just a short form where you pick your country and give a reason why this is a mistake. When you submit the form, it says something like “We’ll get back to you by email within a few weeks.”

Which will happen first? The automatic switching of the country association, or Google responding to my inquiry? It’s going to be a race!

This may seem like busy work but I think it’s important to do what you can to protect your privacy. If you do nothing, Google and others will erode your rights online if it correlates with increasing profits. If we don’t pay attention and raise these kind of issues, then they might go unnoticed and may be considered bona-fide.

Edit: 4.4.2021

Google responded with:

You recently sent us a request to change the country associated with your Google Account. After reviewing your account, we think your current country association is accurate and we didn’t change anything.

Your country:Malaysia

You can see the country associated with your account by looking at Google’s Terms of Service.

Edit: 20.6.2021

This article has been getting attention today on Hackernews. I want to clarify a couple of points. The objective of this article is to raise some concerns I have about this automatic process of switching country association. I tried to find more information in Google’s Terms of Service to understand it, and I didn’t find anything.

I issued a Country Association Inquiry as a final effort to get some information. I was hoping a human would reply and I could ask a question. I requested that Google leave my country association as Germany, and I got the response above (see Edit: 4.4.2021). The response appears to be a automated response or canned response. Google making a correct/incorrect assessment of my location/residence was not my objective. I wanted to understand the process and what impact it has on interaction with Google. I would like to know this because it will inform my future actions if I use Google services.

Some of the discussion in the thread in Hackernews made this about me. I didn’t say Google should be doing X or Y. I didn’t say that they made the right or wrong decision based on my exact circumstances. I just shared the info I was comfortable sharing, and outlined what was unclear to me. I did this in the hope that it would help you. I am skeptical that Google will get this right all the time as an automated process.

I cross-posted this to dev.to and Daniel Schroeder reported that he got this email recently also and he has been physically in Germany for the last 2 years:

I got the same Mail. They want to move my account from Germany to Thailand. I’ve not been to Thailand (or anywhere else) since 2 years…

Daniel said he will report it to the authorities in Germany if they do not change his country association to Germany. It appears that my hunch was correct.

You should do your own research. You should make your own conclusions. If you have concerns, contact Google.